Review: Lady Sunrise

by Lynn on March 2, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Factory Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Marjorie Chan

Directed by Nina Lee Aquino

Set by Camellia Koo

Costumes by Jackie Chau

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Sound design and composition by Debashis Sinha

Cast: Belinda Corpuz

Ma-Anne Dionisio

Zoë Doyle

Rosie Simon

Lindsay Wu

Louisa Zhu

An exploration of six Asian women and their relationship to money. It’s a story that’s applicable to a broader world, that we’ve seen before.  

The Story and Production. Playwright Marjorie Chan wanted to write a play about Asian women’s relationship with money. Her model was the 1936 play Sunrise by Cao Yu, which took place in a brothel for the most part and dealt with a kind of feudal system.

Marjorie Chan’s play is Lady Sunrise and is set in contemporary Vancouver and involves six Asian women. They are a cross section of society in a sense with different attitudes to money. Most often the dialogue takes the form of monologues delivered directly to the audience.

Banker Wong (Rosie Simon) is successful and at the top of her game. She is driven by hard work and the success it brings.  Her language is full of references to profits and successful quarters and is hard-nosed about her abilities. As Banker Wong, Rosie Simon is matter-of-fact, focused and steely-eyed in her dealings and assessment of others.

Tawny Ku (Ma-Anne Dionisio) is a wealthy real estate tycoon who inherited the business and her money from her late husband. She is interested in making deals and seems rather trusting in her business partners. She mentions a man named Frankie Pan (sp?) who might be a bit shady. Tawny Ku learned how to take care of her money and increase it from Banker Wong. Apparently the finances that Tawny Ku inherited were in a mess and Banker Wong straightened it all out. Ma-Anne Dionisio as Tawny Ku has that easy grace of a successful woman who is also a bit of a mother-hen.

Penny (Lindsay Wu) is a party-girl-model-beauty-pageant runner up who depends on others for her money. She doesn’t work really and depends on men and Tawny Ku for her money so she can acquire designer stuff. Frankie Pan is one of the men with whom she keeps company. Marjorie Chan has made Penny the focal character of the play. Lindsay Wu nicely plays Penny’s shallow, glib, careless-ness. She lives for the glittery life of celebrity, although she is a minor celeb. 

Dealer Li (Zoé Doyle) is a card dealer in a casino who had to work when her husband developed a gambling habit that lead him to do something drastic. She is now the only support of her children. Her earnings go to buy the necessities of life such as groceries. Zoé Doyle plays Dealer Li with a resigned tenacity. She has pluck, heart and resolve.

Charmaine (Louisa Zhu nicely plays her as a tough, hard woman)  runs a massage parlour and Sherry (Belinda Corpuz) works at the massage parlour and is on the bottom rung of the ladder of success when compared to these other women. Sherry doesn’t seem to be able to get out of the job, or get ahead in earning money. And her fortunes hit rock bottom when she encounters a violent customer. As Sherry, Belinda Corpuz gives an emotional raw, compelling performance.

The women are connected tangentially, some in obvious ways, some in tenuous ways.

Banker Wong helped sort out the finances of Tawny Ku. Tawny Ku treats Penny as a daughter (Tawny Ku is estranged from her own daughter) pays off Penny’s charge cards and urges her to get a job and pay for herself.  Penny used to go into the casino where Dealer Li works with Frankie Pan and Dealer Li comments that she knows that type—who depend on men for their trinkets. Banker Wong is jogging and gets a cramp in her leg and is helped by Charmaine, the massage parlour manager, who happens to be on the street at the time.  Dealer Li sees Sherry, the massage worker, in distress and helps her.

What I found interesting in the play is that these women reached out to help others in distress or in need; Whether it was Banker Wong doing her job getting Tawny Ku’s finances in order or telling her to be more careful in her dealings; or Tawny Ku telling Penny to find a real job; or even Dealer Li saving a life….I liked that compassion and the reaching out of the women.

This is not to say that men aren’t there (they aren’t in person, but their presence is everywhere). While it’s not spoken Banker Wong is being driven to be the best in a man’s world. A man left Tawny Ku his money and his financial mess. Her business associate is a man and he’s duped her. Penny depends on men for dates, trinkets and modeling jobs. Dealer Li is in the predicament she’s in because of her husband’s gambling. Charmaine manages the massage parlour owned by a man and Sherry is nearly killed by one.

Director Nina Lee Aquino has created a stylish production that establishes both the poshness and sordidness of the various worlds of these women. Camellia Koo’s set was composed of a series of stacked horizontal ramps that sloped down from stage right down to stage left. The ramps could be symbolic of the rise each woman climbed up to success or slid down. The fact that the ramps are also rising in a parallel way, suggest a penthouse in a high rise. I also thought that a series of ramps is not the most actor-friendly structure to have to play on. (My calves were screaming in sympathetic ache). Jackie Chau’s costumes also accented the women’s stature: a power pant suit for Banker Wong, sleek clothes for Tawny Li and Penny, and work clothes for the others. Michelle Ramsay’s moody lighting shows both a murky world and one of money.   

Comment. I liked that cross section of women and their different outlook on money. The structures of the richest at the top and the more downtrodden at the bottom is interesting, but we know all that. As with any specific focus of a story, this one has a universal application. Every person in the audience, not just with an Asian background, will identify with some aspect of the story. That seems easy and obvious. I can appreciate that Marjorie Chan wanted to explore Asian women and their relation to money, but I have to ask why? After a while I thought the exploration was more like “what’s the point?” Is that all there is? We have seen this before and better elsewhere with more depth.

Tawny Ku has an abrupt reconciliation with her once estranged daughter that doesn’t ring true. It’s too pat a solution to a thorny situation that is not explored at all.

Penny seems to be the focus of the play and everything revolves around her. She’s very funny, certainly as Lindsay Wu plays her. But she’s a character who is as shallow at the end of the play as she is at the beginning. She describes something horrific that happens to her at a party celebrating a photo shoot and certainly the audience would find sympathy for her, But Penny is so intoxicated with the world of celebrity she would seem to ignore what happen to her just to be in that glittery world. Sometimes an audience’s good will is stretched past the point of reason.

The ending also is clumsy and could use another revision. Banker Wong is jogging and makes an unsettling discovery.  She makes a call, can we assume 911? We aren’t sure from the call because when Banker Wong speaks into the phone, rather than say, “911 I need an ambulance” she just says she needs help. Is Marjorie Chan trying to show us Banker Wong’s vulnerability? It doesn’t work. It’s not Banker Wong who needs help in that scene so it’s a bit of a cheat having her ask for it.  Lady Sunrise needs a re-think and more depth.

Factory Theatre presents:

Began: Feb. 15, 2020.

Closes: March 8, 2020.

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